March Of Cyrus And Retreat Of The Ten Thousand Greeks

The Peloponnesian war being closed, a large body of Grecian

soldiers were disbanded, but rendered venal and restless by the

excitements and changes of the past thirty years, and ready to embark in

any warlike enterprise that promised money and spoil. They were unfitted,

as is usually the case, for sober and industrial pursuits. They panted for

fresh adventures.

This restless passion which war ever kindles
found vent and

direction in the enterprise which Cyrus led from Western Asia to dethrone

his brother Artaxerxes from the throne of Persia. Some fourteen thousand

Greeks from different States joined his standard--not with a view of a

march to Babylon and an attack on the great king, but to conquer and root

out the Pisidian mountaineers, who did much mischief from their fastnesses

in the southeast of Asia Minor. This was the ostensible object of Cyrus,

and he found no difficulty in enlisting Grecian mercenaries, under promise

of large rewards. All these Greeks were deceived but one man, to whom

alone Cyrus revealed his real purpose. This was Clearchus, a Lacedaemonian

general of considerable ability and experience, who had been banished for

abuse of authority at Byzantium, which he commanded. He repaired to Sardis

and offered his services to Cyrus, who had been sent thither by his father

Darius to command the Persian forces. Cyrus accepted the overtures of

Clearchus, who secured his confidence so completely that he gave him the

large sum of ten thousand darics, which he employed in hiring Grecian


Other Greeks of note also joined the army of Cyrus with a view of

being employed against the Pisidians. Among them were Aristippus and

Menon, of a distinguished family in Thessaly; Proxenus, a Boeotian; Agis,

an Arcadian; Socrates, an Achaean, who were employed to collect

mercenaries, and who received large sums of money. A considerable body of

Lacedaemonians were also taken under pay.

The march of these men to Babylon, and their successful retreat, form one

of the most interesting episodes in Grecian history, and it is this march

and retreat which I purpose briefly to present.

Cyrus was an extraordinary man. The younger son of the Persian

king, he aimed to secure the sovereignty of Persia, which fell to his

elder brother, Artaxerxes, on the death of Darius. During his residence at

Sardis, as satrap or governor, he perceived and felt the great superiority

of the Greeks to his own countrymen, not only intellectually, but as

soldiers. He was brave, generous, frank, and ambitious. Had it been his

fortune to have achieved the object of his ambition, the whole history of

Persia would have been changed, and Alexander would have lived in vain.

Perceiving and appreciating the great qualities of the Greeks, and

learning how to influence them, he sought, by their aid, to conquer his

way to the throne.

But he dissembled his designs so that they were not suspected, even

in Persia. As has been remarked, he communicated them only to the Spartan

general, Clearchus. Neither Greek nor Persian divined his object as he

collected a great army at Sardis. At first he employed his forces in the

siege of Miletus and other enterprises, which provoked no suspicion of his

real designs.

When all was ready, he commenced his march from Sardis, in March,

B.C. 401, with about eight thousand Grecian hoplites and one hundred

thousand native troops, while a joint Lacedaemonian and Persian fleet

coasted around the south of Asia Minor to co-operate with the land forces.

These Greeks who thus joined his standard under promise of large

pay, and were unwittingly about to plunge into unknown perils, were not

outcasts and paupers, but were men of position, reputation, and, in some

cases, of wealth. About half of them were Arcadians. Young men of good

family, ennuied of home, restless and adventurous, formed the greater

part, although many of mature age had been induced by liberal offers to

leave their wives and children. They simply calculated on a year's

campaign in Pisidia, from which they would return to their homes enriched.

So they were assured by the Greek commanders at Sardis, and so these

commanders believed, for Cyrus stood high in popular estimation for

liberality and good faith.

Among other illustrious Greeks that were thus to be led so far from

home was Xenophon, the Athenian historian, who was induced by his friend

Proxenus, of Boeotia, to join the expedition. He was of high family, and a

pupil of Socrates, but embarked against the wishes and advice of his


When the siege of Miletus was abandoned, and Cyrus began his march, his

object was divined by the satrap Tissaphernes, who hastened to Persia to

put the king on his guard.

At Celenae, or Kelaenae, a Phrygian city, Cyrus halted and reviewed

his army. Grecian re-enforcements here joined him, which swelled the

number of Greeks to thirteen thousand men, of whom eleven thousand were

hoplites. As this city was on the way to Pisidia, no mistrust existed as

to the object of the expedition, not even when the army passed into

Lycaonia, since its inhabitants were of the same predatory character as

the Pisidians. But when it had crossed Mount Taurus, which bounded

Cilicia, and reached Tarsus, the Greeks perceived that they had been

cheated, and refused to advance farther. Clearchus attempted to suppress

the mutiny by severe measures, but failed. He then resorted to stratagem,

and pretended to yield to the wishes of the Greeks, and likewise refused

to march, but sent a secret dispatch to Cyrus that all would be well in

the end, and requested him to send fresh invitations, that he might answer

by fresh refusals. He then, with the characteristic cunning and eloquence

of a Greek, made known to his countrymen the extreme peril of making Cyrus

their enemy in a hostile country, where retreat was beset with so many

dangers, and induced them to proceed. So the army continued its march to

Issus, at the extremity of the Issican Gulf, and near the mountains which

separate Cilicia from Syria. Here Cyrus was further re-enforced, making

the grand total of Greeks in his army fourteen thousand.

He expected to find the passes over the mountains, a day's journey

from Issus, defended, but the Persian general Abrocomas fled at his

approach, and Cyrus easily crossed into Syria by the pass of Beilan, over

Mount Amanus. He then proceeded south to Myriandus, a Phoenician maritime

town, where he parted from his fleet. Eight days' march brought his army

to Thapsacus, on the Euphrates, where he remained five days to refresh his

troops. Here again the Greeks showed a reluctance to proceed, but, on the

promise of five minae a head, nearly one hundred dollars more than a year's

pay, they consented to advance. It was here Cyrus crossed the river

unobstructed, and continued his march on the left bank for nine days,

until he came to the river Araxes, which separates Syria from Arabia. Thus

far his army was well supplied with provisions from the numerous villages

through which they passed; but now he entered a desert country, entirely

without cultivation, where the astonished Greeks beheld for the first time

wild asses, antelopes, and ostriches. For eighteen days the army marched

without other provisions than what they brought with them, parched with

thirst and exhausted by heat. At Pylae they reached the cultivated

territory of Babylonia, and the alluvial plains commenced. Three days'

further march brought them to Cunaxa, about seventy miles from Babylon,

where the army of Artaxerxes was marshaled to meet them. It was an immense

force of more than a million of men, besides six thousand horse-guards and

two hundred chariots. But so confident was Cyrus of the vast superiority

of the Greeks and their warfare, that he did not hesitate to engage the

overwhelming forces of his brother with only ten thousand Greeks and one

hundred thousand Asiatics. The battle of Cunaxa was fatal to Cyrus; he was

slain and his camp was pillaged. The expedition had failed.

Dismay now seized the Greeks, as well it might--a handful of men in

the midst of innumerable enemies, and in the very centre of the Persian

empire. But such men are not driven to despair. They refused to surrender,

and make up their minds to retreat--to find their way back again to Greece,

since all aggressive measures was madness.

This retreat, amid so many difficulties, and against such powerful and

numerous enemies, is one of the most gallant actions in the history of

war, and has made those ten thousand men immortal.

Ariaeus, who commanded the Asiatic forces on the left wing of the

army at the battle of Cunaxa, joined the Greeks with what force remained,

in retreat, and promised to guide them to the Asiatic coast, not by the

route which Cyrus had taken, for this was now impracticable, but by a

longer one, up the course of the Tigris, through Armenia, to the Euxine

Sea. The Greeks had marched ninety days from Sardis, about fourteen

hundred and sixty-four English miles, and rested ninety-six days in

various places. Six months had been spent on the expedition, and it would

take more than that time to return, considering the new difficulties which

it was necessary to surmount. The condition of the Greeks, to all

appearance, was hopeless. How were they to ford rivers and cross

mountains, with a hostile cavalry in their rear, without supplies, without

a knowledge of roads, without trustworthy guides, through hostile


The Persians still continued their negotiations, regarding the

advance or retreat of the Greeks alike impossible, and curious to learn

what motives had brought them so far from home. They replied that they had

been deceived, that they had no hostility to the Persian king, that they

had been ashamed to desert Cyrus in the midst of danger, and that they now

desired only to return home peaceably, but were prepared to repel


It was not pleasant to the Persian monarch to have thirteen

thousand Grecian veterans, whose prestige was immense, and whose power was

really formidable, in the heart of the kingdom. It was not easy to conquer

such brave men, reduced to desperation, without immense losses and

probable humiliation. So the Persians dissembled. It was their object to

get the Greeks out of Babylonia, where they could easily intrench and

support themselves, and then attack them at a disadvantage. So

Tissaphernes agreed to conduct them home by a different route. They

acceded to his proposal, and he led them to the banks of the Tigris, and

advanced on its left bank, north to the Great Zab River, about two hundred

miles from Babylon. The Persians marched in advance, and the Greeks about

three miles in the rear. At the Great Zab they halted three days, and then

Tissaphernes enticed the Greek generals to his tent, ostensibly to feast

them and renew negotiations. There they were seized, sent prisoners to the

Persian court, and treacherously murdered.

Utter despair now seized the Greeks. They were deprived of their

generals, in the heart of Media, with unscrupulous enemies in the rear,

and the mountains of Armenia in their front, whose passes were defended by

hostile barbarians, and this in the depth of winter, deprived of guides,

and exposed to every kind of hardship, difficulty, and danger. They were

apparently in the hands of their enemies, without any probability of

escape. They were then summoned to surrender to the Persians, but they

resolved to fight their way home, great as were their dangers and

insurmountable the difficulties--a most heroic resolution. And their

retreat, under these circumstances, to the Euxine, is the most

extraordinary march in the whole history of war.

But a great man appeared, in this crisis, to lead them, whose

prudence, sagacity, moderation, and courage can never be sufficiently

praised, and his successful retreat places him in the ranks of the great

generals of the world. Xenophon, the Athenian historian, now appears upon

the stage with all those noble qualities which inspired the heroes at the

siege of Troy--a man as religious as he was brave and magnanimous, and

eloquent even for a Greek. He summoned together the captains, and

persuaded them to advance, giving the assurance of the protection of Zeus.

He then convened the army, and inspired them by his spirit, with

surpassing eloquence, and acquired the ascendency of a Moses by his

genius, piety, and wisdom. His military rank was not great, but in such an

emergency talents and virtues have more force than rank.

So, under his leadership, the Greeks crossed the Zab, and resumed

their march to the north, harassed by Persian cavalry, and subjected to

great privations. The army no longer marched, as was usual, in one

undivided hollow square, but in small companies, for they were obliged to

cross mountains and ford rivers. So long as they marched on the banks of

the Tigris, they found well-stocked villages, from which they obtained

supplies; but as they entered the country of the Carducians, they were

obliged to leave the Tigris to their left, and cross the high mountains

which divided it from Armenia. They were also compelled to burn their

baggage, for the roads were nearly impassable, not only on account of the

narrow defiles, but from the vast quantities of snow which fell. Their

situation was full of peril, and fatigue, and privation. Still they

persevered, animated by the example and eloquence of their intrepid

leader. At every new pass they were obliged to fight a battle, but the

enemies they encountered could not withstand their arms in close combat,

and usually fled, contented to harass them by rolling stones down the

mountains on their heads, and discharging their long arrows.

The march through Armenia was still more difficult, for the

inhabitants were more warlike and hardy, and the passage more difficult.

They also were sorely troubled for lack of guides. The sufferings of the

Greeks were intense from cold and privation. The beasts of burden perished

in the snow, while the soldiers were frost-bitten and famished. It was

their good fortune to find villages, after several days' march, where they

halted and rested, but assailed all the while by hostile bands. Yet onward

they pressed, wearied and hungry, through the country of the Taochi, of

the Chalybes, of the Scytheni, of the Marones, of the Colchians, and

reached Trapezus (Trebizond) in safety. The sight of the sea filled the

Greeks with indescribable joy after so many perils, for the sea was their

own element, and they could now pursue their way in ships rather than by

perilous marches.

But the delays were long and dreary. There were no ships to

transport the warriors to Byzantium. They were exposed to new troubles

from the indifference or hostility of the cities on the Euxine, for so

large a force created alarm. And when the most pressing dangers were

passed, the license of the men broke out, so that it was difficult to

preserve order and prevent them from robbing their friends. They were

obliged to resort to marauding expeditions among the Asiatic people, and

it was difficult to support themselves. Not being able to get ships, they

marched along the coast to Cotyora, exposed to incessant hostilities. It

was now the desire of Xenophon to found a new city on the Euxine with the

army; but the army was eager to return home, and did not accede to the

proposal. Clamors arose against the general who had led them so gloriously

from the heart of Media, and his speeches in his defense are among the

most eloquent on Grecian record. He remonstrated against the disorders of

the army, and had sufficient influence to secure reform, and completely

triumphed over faction as he had over danger.

At last ships were provided, and the army passed by sea to Sinope--a

Grecian colony--where the men were hospitably received, and fed, and

lodged. From thence the army passed by sea to Heracleia, where the

soldiers sought to extort money against the opposition of Xenophon and

Cherisophus, the latter of whom had nobly seconded the plans of Xenophon,

although a Spartan of superior military rank. The army, at this

opposition, divided into three factions, but on suffering new disasters,

reunited. It made a halt at Calpe, where new disorders broke out. Then

Cleander, Spartan governor of Byzantium, arrived with two triremes, who

promised to conduct the army, and took command of it, but subsequently

threw up his command from the unpropitious sacrifices. Nothing proved the

religious character of the Greeks so forcibly as their scrupulous

attention to the rites imposed by their pagan faith. They undertook no

enterprise of importance without sacrifices to the gods, and if the

auguries were unfavorable, they relinquished their most cherished objects.

From Calpe the army marched to Chalcedon, turning into money the

slaves and plunder which it had collected. There it remained seven days.

But nothing could be done without the consent of the Spartan admiral at

Byzantium, Anaxibius, since the Lacedaemonians were the masters of Greece

both by sea and land. This man was bribed by the Persian satrap

Pharnabazus, who commanded the north-western region of Asia Minor, to

transport the army to the European side of the Bosphorus. It accordingly

crossed to Byzantium, but was not allowed to halt in the city, or even to

enter the gates.

The wrath of the soldiers was boundless when they were thus

excluded from Byzantium. They rushed into the town and took possession,

which conduct gave grave apprehension to Xenophon, who mustered and

harangued the army, and thus prevented anticipated violence. They at

length consented to leave the city, and accepted the services of the

Theban Coeratidas, who promised to conduct them to the Delta of Thrace,

for purposes of plunder, but he was soon dismissed. After various

misfortunes the soldiers at length were taken under the pay of Seuthes, a

Thracian prince, who sought the recovery of his principality, but who

cheated them out of their pay. A change of policy among the Lacedaemonians

led to the conveyance of the Cyrenian army into Asia in order to make war

on the satraps. Xenophon accordingly conducted his troops, now reduced to

six thousand men, over Mount Ida to Pergamus. He succeeded in capturing

the Persian general Asidates, and securing a valuable booty, B.C. 399. The

soldiers whom he had led were now incorporated with the Lacedaemonian army

in Asia, and Xenophon himself enlisted in the Spartan service. His

subsequent fortunes we have not room to present. An exile from Athens, he

settled in Scillus, near Olympia, with abundant wealth, but ultimately

returned to his native city after the battle of Leuctra.

The impression produced on the Grecian mind by the successful

retreat of the Ten Thousand was profound and lasting. Its most obvious

effect was to produce contempt for Persian armies and Persian generals,

and to show that Persia was only strong by employing Hellenic strength

against the Hellenic cause. The real weakness of Persia was thus revealed

to the Greeks, and sentiments were fostered which two generations

afterward led to the expeditions of Alexander and the subjection of Asia

to Grecian rule.